An Attempt to Explain 'Public Plan' that Didn't Fly
by Alicia C. Shepard
NPR is famous for trying to find creative ways to tell stories and explain difficult concepts. My favorite may be when host Robert Siegel asked a farmer to actually put lipstick on a Virginia pig. But not all attempts work as well.
This week, April Fulton, an editor on the science desk, attempted to use an analogy of an airplane to explain what the Obama administration means when it talks about a "public plan" for health insurance.
Fulton suggested substituting the words "public airplane" for "public plan."
"President Obama wants all Americans to get to Healthyville," Fulton said in her piece for Morning Edition on July 7. "Right now, there are many ways to get there, including flying on big, fancy air carriers. They offer leg room and complimentary drinks. Maybe there's an in-seat TV and a hot towel if you can afford it. The trouble is, it's getting more expensive to travel, and some people can't afford to travel at all. So the president wants to create, say, Government Air, which will offer you a ride in a public airplane." (SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING AIRPLANE SOUND)
But unfortunately, while the attempt was laudable, the piece came across as one-sided, leading some listeners to conclude that NPR was editorializing in support of the Obama plan.
"I am done. I've had it. For years I have defended NPR from the complaints of my conservative friends," wrote Robert Daly of Hollywood, FL. "Listen to that report and ask yourself if you can distinguish between it and an Obama administration press release?"
Not only did the Ombudsman's office receive emails, but there are 125 comments to date below the story — and most comments are critical.
This was a case where better execution and explanation were needed for what NPR was trying to do.
The goal was to explain in a simple analogy what the public plan involves, since the term is swirling around now without much explanation, said Anne Gudenkauf, NPR's senior science editor. "This was simply an explainer, describing what the administration's proposal for a public plan is," she said. "Like a glossary. Or a dictionary entry."
Gudenkauf said the science desk plans to run a series of pieces like Fulton's that will explain in simple, easy-to-grasp terms some of the arcane language involved in the health care debate. The airplane analogy is the first of several to come.
The main problem with Fulton's story was that it was not clear to listeners what the piece was attempting to do — especially since it followed two fully-reported health care stories on Morning Edition. One discussed new rules surrounding stem cell research and the other was on Congress's self-imposed deadline to get a health care bill passed before the August recess.
Then came Fulton's airplane analogy, without much explanation of how it was different from the two previous news stories.
Fulton's piece said that if there's a public airline, then private airlines are likely to lower prices. She acknowledged that private airlines would protest and complain that if the government steps in, they'll be forced out of business.
"The president says not to worry," Fulton said in closing her piece. "Like good capitalists, the current carriers will start cutting their prices to attract customers back, because if demand is high for lower prices, the market will produce lower prices. And then perhaps the cost of health care stops skyrocketing into the stratosphere, which was President Obama's hope all along."
It's easy to see how some listeners might interpret that as an endorsement of the administration's proposal. Gudenkauf said it most definitely was not, but she acknowledged that the piece wasn't set up well. The introduction should have made it clear that this was a so-called "explainer" of a complex topic.
"I would have liked the intro to more strongly suggest what the piece was," said Gudenkauf, acknowledging that did not happen. "It was not a journalistic examination. It was not an analysis. It was an explanation. We needed to make it more clear that this is what the public plan means to the Obama administration."
Often, when NPR does explainer pieces, they are two-way chats between a reporter or expert and a show host. But this format was different, using an unfocused analogy. And because it was not clear what the piece was trying to convey, it came across as a reported piece that involved only the administration's side, without any representation of opposing views. Hence the criticism.
Gudenkauf said she has learned from this.
"I read every one of those comments and I care very much what people are saying," she said. "If we didn't do a perfect job this time, we'll try to do it better next time."